New York State's "Great Irish Famine Curriculum": A Report

Article excerpt

THE Great Irish Famine Curriculum was founded on initiatives that came from both sides of the narrow street in Albany that separates the chambers of the New York State Legislature from the New York State Education Department. In 1996, the State Education Department started distributing copies of its new Learning Standards, the performance-based learning criteria designed to improve the quality of education in the state's public schools. Schools' accountability for ensuring that new standards are met would be measured by a new set of assessments in all subjects for pupils in grades four, eight, and eleven. Tests like the Regents would no longer be optional; all students would be examined. Because the assessments would be performance-based, no set curricula were provided with the new standards. The following year, across the street, Irish-American members of the New York State Legislature, led by Assemblymen Joseph Crowley and John McEneny, proposed to observe the 150th anniversary of the worst year of the Great Irish Famine by requiring that the State's Human Rights Curriculum for public schools, which includes American slavery and the European Holocaust, also cover the Great Irish Famine. The legislature passed the amendment with enthusiastic bipartisan support, and approved an appropriation bill to support the development of a Great Irish Famine curriculum.

At Hofstra University, a team of educators responded to the State Education Department's call for curriculum proposals by linking the teaching of the Great Irish Famine to the new Learning Standards. Members of the Hofstra University team included Professor of Secondary Education and English, Maureen Murphy, Director; Professor of Elementary Education, Maureen McCann Miletta; and Associate Professor of Secondary Education and Social Studies, Alan Singer. Murphy's research interests are in Irish Studies; Singer's are in the American labor movement; and Miletta's are in children's literature. We are all teacher-educators with regular working relationships with networks of cooperative teachers, department chairs, and administrators. We are in touch with our former students teaching in the area. Murphy and Singer also work with the Hofstra New Teacher Network, a mentoring program for first-year secondary school teachers, many of whom teach in schools designated as having high needs. We believed that we could use the Great Irish Famine Curriculum in schools that were facing the new standards and assessments without the resources of wealthier suburban districts.

We were especially fortunate in our Advisory Board. Chaired by Dr. Margaret MacCurtain, O.P., Chair of the Advisory Council of the National Archives of Ireland, the board included Professor Mary E. Daly (University College, Dublin); Professor James S. Donnelly, Jr. (University of Wisconsin); Professor Margaret Kelleher (National University of Ireland, Maynooth); Noel Kissane (Keeper of Manuscripts, National Library of Ireland); Professor Joe Lee (University College, Cork); New York State Senator Michael Holbrook; Professor Kerby Miller (University of Missouri, Columbia); Peter Quinn (Time-Warner); Professor Cormac O'Grada (University College, Dublin); Professor Kevin O'Neill (Director of Irish Studies, Boston College); and Professor Robert Scally (Director, Ireland House, New York University). Their willingness to share their own work with us, to meet with us to discuss the project, and read through drafts of the Great Irish Famine Curriculum helped us create a document informed by their high standard of scholarship.

We proposed to create twenty-four interdisciplinary lesson plans for grades four through twelve. As stipulated by the terms of the grant, we promised to provide a resource guide for teachers in the state's eight thousand schools, a Website, and a CD-ROM. We created one hundred fifty interdisciplinary lessons using art, career development, dance, economics, family and consumer science, geography, government, history, literature, mathematics, music, science, technology, and theatre. …


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